One Old Dog, Three New Tricks

I was reading Nat G. Bodian’s “Direct Marketing Rules of Thumb” the other day. A terrific compendium of received wisdom on what works and what does not in direct marketing, this book helps marketers avoid the mistakes made by others before them, and using it can cut testing budgets dramatically. But it got me thinking.

Here is the Internet. Do the time-honored rules of thumb still hold? There are at least three ways the Web has altered the direct marketing landscape.

Opt-in versus opt-out. The Web turned our views about lists upside down. For decades, we have assumed that we can contact customers and prospects at will, as long as we have their addresses or phone numbers. As responsible marketers, we have regularly offered them the chance to opt out of receiving our communications. To be sure, we usually make the offer in the smallest possible type. The Direct Marketing Association spends considerable bucks managing a suppression file of consumer requests to be “taken off the list.” But the overall attitude in our industry is contact ’til forbid.

Having applied these rules successfully to direct mail and telemarketing, we sensibly assumed that they would apply to e-mail, too. I was an early supporter of opt-out policies for e-mail. But I have changed my mind, as I have observed the growth of a loud and sustained cry from consumers and pundits alike that advertising e-mail is not acceptable without a positive indication of permission.

The battle rages on. The DMA still supports an opt-out position for e-mail, probably because it fears that the opt-out line in the sand, once crossed, will drift over to include other media. And even the opt-in supporters still argue over definitions and standards. Is it “double” opt-in? Can the box be pre-checked? Many issues remain to be decided before there is a set of rules we can all live by.

The opt-in/opt-out controversy seems to apply only to addressable media, meaning one-to-one contacts. One-to-many media, like print and broadcast, appear to be immune. In a permission marketing world, is broadcast advertising spam?

The Internet has allowed us to learn an important lesson. As marketers, we operate at the by-your-leave of customers, and of society as a whole. When our zeal takes us into territory that society will not abide, we hear about it. And we adjust. Opt-in standards for e-mail marketing is one of these areas that consumers are telling us we must do. One rule of thumb — gone.

Privacy. Another area where the Web has forced us to change is how we handle consumer information. The Web has accelerated an already growing concern among consumers about marketing use of data.

Some kind of privacy legislation will become law this year. The DMA is doing a herculean job to shape it for the best interests of responsible marketers. Consumer privacy concerns are most acute in the areas of personal finance, health and children. As marketers, we must respond to people’s concerns while protecting our right to collect and analyze data that allow us to deliver relevant commercial messages.

What is interesting is how our own attitudes as direct marketers have changed. I was dismissive of privacy concerns a few years back. I smiled when Sun Microsystems’ Scott McNealy said, “You already have zero privacy. Get over it.”

But the tone of society has changed, and marketers must change along with it.

The Web not only has sped up the privacy issue, but it also has provided us with some excellent tools to cope with consumer demands. Posting a privacy policy is a fairly straightforward exercise. The DMA even offers a Web-based template so you can create one instantly. Visit

So does this mean there aren’t going to be any rules of thumb for Internet marketers? Nope. It will just take a bit more time before they emerge.

Short copy. But I already know one “new, new” rule of thumb: Short copy beats long copy in e-mail. When I first approached the e-mail medium, my early instinct favored the rambling, colorful, evocative copy that works so well in direct mail letters. But I was quickly proved wrong. Short is better. Bullets are good. Get to the point in the first sentence.

Many of the “old, old” rules still apply in e-mail. You do want an offer and a strong call to action. And you want to ask for the action frequently, with multiple links to the response page, sprinkled throughout the message.

This last item about short copy might sound frivolous next to a discussion of privacy and societal constraints on marketers. Nevertheless, it is true. The Web has changed our understanding of the direct marketing business. It has changed me.

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